January 24, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 450

Spain And The Fine Art Of Moroccan Gatekeeping

January 24, 2023 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
North Africa | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 450

The vote was a striking one. 356 members of the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution against the Kingdom of Morocco, condemning various human rights concerns and "expressing profound concern about the accusations that Moroccan authorities have corrupted deputies in the European Parliament." Morocco is alleged to be a player in the scandal known as "Qatargate" which is, as the name suggests, mostly about, but not limited to, oil-rich Qatar buying influence in the European Parliament.[1]

Voting against the resolution on January 19, 2023, were a scattering of far-right parties and Spain's ruling Socialist Party (PSOE), which made up more than half of the 32 no votes.[2] Political observers speculated that PSOE voted this way in order not to upset the upcoming Spain-Morocco bilateral meeting to take place on February 1-2 in Rabat, the first such meeting since 2015.

The contrast between the foreign policy of the two states is compelling. Morocco seems to be focused and consistent in its policy goals and has scored major diplomatic gains with American recognition of Morocco's position on Western Sahara (by the Trump Administration and not reversed by the Biden Administration).[3] Spain under the Socialists has been anything but consistent, going from hosting the head of the anti-Morocco Algerian-supported Western Sahara rebel group POLISARIO in April 2021 to less than a year later recognizing Morocco's autonomy plan for Western Sahara.[4] Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in March 2022 made a historic shift toward taking Morocco's side in the conflict over the former Spanish colony without informing his communist allies in Podemos or Algeria, a major supplier of energy for Spain.[5]

Although Morocco is slightly smaller and poorer than its Iberian neighbor, it is Spain, an EU and NATO member, that treads carefully lest it offend or provoke the ire of its North African counterpart. And while Moroccan foreign and defense policy is more consistent and better run than that of Socialist Spain, the difference and incongruity in the power relationship is that Morocco can wield a weapon that neither Spain nor the EU nor even NATO can hope to match: the migration weapon.

Spanish observers noted that the PSOE vote in favor of Morocco at the EU Parliament was not only about the upcoming bilateral summit but also "In order to preserve the opening of Customs at [the Spanish North African cities of] Ceuta and Melilla, which we will see under what conditions they are done, but in general to avoid Morocco creating problems, starting with the migration problem, a tool it has frequently used to exert pressure on Spain."[6]

While the Spanish Left, like most of the political left in the developed world, is ideologically in favor of more migration and seems to prefer illegal migrants over their own citizens, 2023 is an election year in Spain and too many migrants arriving too soon can boomerang with a skittish electorate. The mainstream media in Spain, which leans strongly left, generally covers for the Socialists and is loath to cover hot-button issues such as crime by migrants but the media cannot make the issues disappear completely. The proverbial frog in the hot water must be boiled relatively slowly and with little attention.

Spain wants to avoid, at all costs, a repeat before election day of the debacle seen in June 2022 when 2,000 men, most of them reportedly Sudanese and South Sudanese, attempted to storm the 6-to-10-meter chain-link fence at Melilla and at least 23 of the migrants died in the attempt.[7] While Western human rights organizations slammed both Spanish and Moroccan border police for their actions, such condemnations resonate mostly in a West conditioned, in a Pavolovian manner, to take the strident rhetoric of "the NGO-Industrial Complex" to heart.[8]

Aside from the specifics of the bilateral relationship between Spain and Morocco, Morocco's able playing of the migration card, its careful modulation of migrant flows based on a political agenda, points to an interesting political future: the role of important countries adjacent to those wealthy destinations that attract the most immigrants. These major "gatekeeper" countries, one thinks of Morocco, Mexico, and Turkey, could likely see their diplomatic and political clout enhanced as the intense human drama of illegal migration only increases in the years to come. There are other, lesser gatekeeping players – Cuba, the other North African countries, even Lebanon and Syria – but they are either more distant from the metropole or beset with massive internal problems of their own. The big three in Morocco, Mexico, and Turkey are, despite their own internal problems, substantial countries with their own issues and agendas and the power to become major transit points or choke points for millions trying to get to the promised land. Morocco's migrants trying to get into Spain include both Moroccan citizens and people from throughout Africa and the Middle East.

Many (especially on the political right) mocked the recent appearance of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore at the World Economic Forum at Davos ("visions of apocalyptic doom in a crazed rant at the WEF").[9] Gore spoke of "waves of climate refugees predicted to reach one billion this century" while warning about what he called "xenophobia and political authoritarian trends that have come from just a few million refugees" making it to the West.[10] It does not really matter whether Gore's predictions are true but that they are generally believed, and they are, by political elites. And if democratic countries like Spain are willing to soften their policies over the specter of a few thousand migrants at Melilla, what will they do when those numbers are much larger? The EU already had in place arrangements with Libya, Sudan and Turkey using those countries as buffer zones to slow down or control current migration flows. All of these agreements were controversial, especially the one with Sudan over fears that EU funding was strengthening Sudanese paramilitary forces on the ground. That particular agreement was suspended in 2019.[11]

But the larger trend will intensify as we see wealthy states trying to outsource always essential but now politically volatile issues such as border control to their less squeamish neighbors. These neighbors will look to squeeze these Western states as much as possible. Not only is human trafficking a very profitable big business, a growth industry,[12] but so will the business of stopping or slowing them down be profitable as well. Both financially and politically.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], December 18, 2022.

[2], January 19, 2023.

[3] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 280, Ceuta Countdown: Morocco's Hybrid Struggle With Spain, June 1, 2021.

[4] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 371, Spain Changes Course On Morocco And Western Sahara, March 30, 2022.

[5], March 19, 2022.

[6], January 21, 2023.

[7], June 29, 2022.

[8], November 17, 2009.

[9], January 19, 2023.

[10], January 22, 2023.

[11], accessed January 24, 2023.

[12], 2019.

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